Sunday, February 24, 2019

Books: On How Politics Has Evolved

President Donald Trump greets House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the State of the Union.

There are three new books on the state of politics in United States and the world, and how we got to this moment of polarization: Nervous States by Willqim Davies; Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, and Positive Populism by Steve Hilton.

Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason
By William Davies
W.W. Norton & Company; hardcover, $27.95; available Tuesday, February 26

A running theme of our current political moment is people asking how we got here, and William Davies gives this compelling account of the cultural and philosophical movements and technological advancements that have shaped how we live.
William Davies explores how, over a 400-year period, our conceptions of the physical body and emotional self have evolved and shifted. He charts the rise and ultimate erosion of belief in scientific expertise, and the aspirations of an objective, technocratic government, alongside the contemporary phenomenon of a rising authority centered in Silicon Valley, "where the goal is to establish a global nervous system with ever greater sensitivity to our feelings than the free market," Davies writes. "New private empires are built to compete against rival private empires, with attributes that appear more like those of states than typical businesses."
In assessing recent events in Europe and North America, Davies traces the roots of philosophers such as Hobbes and Descartes, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. He examines how the historical embrace of science and the ideals of impartial detachment no longer feels applicable to contemporary life and the omnipresent anxieties around politics, media, medicine, technology, immigration, economic well-being, and the natural world.
Davies writes, "The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body, and between war and peace. These binaries have been gradually weakening for over a hundred years. As we will see, the rise of psychology and psychiatry in the late nineteenth century brought mind and body into closer proximity to each other, demonstrating how our thoughts are influenced by nervous impulses and feelings. The invention of aerial bombing in the early twentieth century meant that war came to include techniques for terrifying and policing civilian populations, well beyond the limits of combat.
"These two distinctions - between mind and body, and war and peace - appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life. Since the 1990s rapid advances in neuroscience have elevated the brain over the mind as the main way by which we understand ourselves, demonstrating the importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making. Meanwhile, new forms of violence have emerged, in which states are attacked by non-state groups, interstate conflicts are fought using nonmilitary means (such as cyberwarfare), and the distinction between policing and military intervention becomes blurred. As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between mind and body, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact. Mapping that condition and identifying its origins is the task of this book."
Davies does not succumb to apathy despite what can feel like unending instability and chaos, as he notes that contemporary life is full of moral and cultural nuances that resist simple arithmetic and broad generalizations. He makes the compelling argument that the embrace of empathy, nonviolence, and universality will better serve us as we construct new institutions to better serve a complex modern society.
Nervous States will add to your understanding of where the United States is at the moment, and how the world is changing around us.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
By Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
W.W. Norton & Company; hardcover; $28.95

The 2016 election and the two years since President Donald Trump took office made one thing clear, that the people of the United States have very little in common in terms of politics and economics, and in their cultural and social relations.
In Fault Lines, two distinguished Princeton historians, Kevin M. Kruse an Julian E. Zelizer, offer the first comprehensive history of our lifetimes, showing that our current moment has actually been decades in the making.
Kruse and Zelizer pay special attention to the rise of political polarization and the growth of a fractured media landscape, tracing the loss of faith in the viability, and possibly even the value, of national unity. With a wide-angle lens, this book looks at the persistent development of political, economic, racial, and sexual divisions in modern America, as well as the cultural and technological changes that fostered and evolved from such divisions.
Their starting point is the 1970s, when there was an erosion of trust in government, brought on by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal; and in the economy, with oil embargos, stagflation, and the steep decline of the manufacturing economy. There also was a reckoning with the long history of racial inequality, including protests and riots over "school busing," and witnessing the crumbling of an old social order predicated on very limited cultural definitions of what it meant to be married, to be a mother or father, and the definition of family, brought on by the Equal Rights Amendment fight and battles over rights for gays and lesbians.
Out of this emerged a conservative movement, which was a backlash against the changes of the 1960s that promised to patch up the fault lines in American life. With the rise of the Religious Right and the New Right, conservatives promised to renew America and unite Americans around a new purpose.
Progressive social activists who were opposed to the rightward direction pushed back and mobilized to defend and expand the legacies of the New Deal and Great Society, and this set up a clash that still goes on today. 
The technological revolution that spawned personal computers and cable news, which initially promised to bridge the growing gaps in American society, ended up fostering more polarizing positions on the political "left" and "right," and further deepening the nation's "culture war."
The 1990s saw the emergence of a peculiar complexity inherent in American political and social culture. On the one hand, Republicans went after President Bill Clinton over an extramarital affair, as they impeached him in the House of Representatives, but could not remove him from office. On the other hand, there was the rise of "shock jocks" like Howard Stern, and an unfiltered democratization  of the airwaves and the internet that would give rise to the acceptance of biased news and claims of authority based on questionable information.
The 2000s was marked by a society in crisis, one that tried but ultimately failed to synthesize ideologies and identities with concepts like "compassionate conservatism" and the patriotism that developed after the September 11, 2001 attacks. A series of notable events, including the contested 2000 election, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial collapse, seemed to further divide the country along partisan lines and identifying a winner-take-all-approach to our politics. This all came to a head with the 2016 election and what Kruse and Zelizer call "the Trump Effect."
"When President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address to the nation in January 2017, much of the country still seemed in shock over the election two months before. In one of the most surprising results in American political history, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, an experienced public servant with a lengthy resume, had lost the presidential race to real estate developer and reality television star Donald J. Trump. Defying the polls and the pundits, the political novice had pulled off a stunning upset. In a sign of the unlikely nature of his win, Trump pieced together an improbable patchwork of states to secure his victory in the electoral college, even though he lost the popular vote by a margin of nearly three million ballots nationwide.
"To many observers, Trump's stunning victory revealed a nation deeply divided. More troubling, the president-elect had come to power largely by widening those divisions. In a brusing bare-knuckle campaign, he had thrown aside the traditional niceties of American politics and repeatedly taunted both his own party rivals in the race for the Republican nomination and then his general election opponent as well. Most ominously, Trump had singled out large segments of American society for attack...Aside from the standard election-night rhetoric about uniting the nation, the incoming president showed little inclination to bring the country together."
Some people would say the election of Trump caused the division we face today; Kruse and Zelizer show that it's quite the opposite, that his rise was the result of divisions building for decades. That makes Fault Lines a necessary read to understand our times as the next president election is in its early stages.

Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas To Rebuild Economic  Security, Family, and Community in America
By Steve Hilton
Crown Forum; hardcover; $26.00

Steve Hilton, the host of The Next Revolution on Fox News, shows how populism can be a positive force for improving lives, sharing big ideas for giving power back to the people in the economy, our society, and the government itself.
The populist revolution is what fueled Donald Trump to the presidency and for the British to vote to leave the European Union, also known as Brexit.
Hilton, an entrepreneur who also served as a senior policy advisor in the UK government, gives revolutionary ideas to restore the economic security that working Americans once took for granted and rebuild the ties of family, community, and nation that have been ripped apart by decades of policies that favored big government, big business, and the powerful.
Recounting his own journey from immigrant roots to the heart of power, and his deeply personal battles with the permanent bureaucracy over there, Hilton vividly describes the scale of change that's needed if the true promise of the populist revolution is to be delivered.
This approach includes a completely fresh approach to jobs, schools, and skills so that every working American can live on what they earn; practical steps to reverse the disaster of family breakdown so that every child can be raised in a stable, loving home; ideas to revitalize our communities by giving citizens real control; and an unprecedented assault on centralized government and the administrative state to make sure that "drain the swamp" is not just a slogan.
Hilton's ideas echo the intent of America's founders by taking power from the ruling class and putting it in the hands of the people, whether by challenging the excessive power of corporations in our economy or the corrupt influence of donors and lobbyists in our government.
Populism has let itself be defined far too long by those who oppose it. By focusing on what it is for, not just what it's against, Hilton provides a coherent philosophy and practical blueprint for how the movement can have an impact beyond one election cycle, and in people's everyday lives.
"I helped rebuild and modernize the Conservative Party in Britain after it had spent more than a decade in the political wilderness. I then worked as a strategist and policymaker at the heart of British power in 10 Downing Street as a senior advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron.
"Once a supporter of Britain's European Union membership, by seeing up close the regular - almost daily - countermanding of the British government's policy decisions by the unelected bureaucracy in Brussels (the headquarters of the EU), I had come to realize the astounding degree to which the United Kingdom had ceded control over its national destiny. Words from America's Declaration of Independence provide a resonant parallel: 'The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.' For 'King of Britain' read EU; for 'these states' read Britain...and you've pretty much got it. The EU has become an ever-expanding, increasingly opaque, and endlessly intrusive institution. Governance was moving further and further away from the British people, their families, and their communities.
"During the EU referendum in 2016, I broke with the Tory leadership and argued that the United Kingdom should become a real democracy again - a nation in which citizens live under laws made by the leaders they elect to represent them. My stance led to a difficult and very visible falling-out with Prime Minister (David) Cameron - not just my former boss, but my longtime friend and the godfather to one of my children.
"The United Kingdom's Brexit vote on June 23, 2016, confounded the establishment's predictions. It was truly the swelling of a populist wave. But the election of Donald Trump five months later was the tsunami."

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